Tampa Bay looking to go from worst to first

Published 12:36 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Worst in baseball to World Series winner.

The Tampa Bay Rays can become the first team in the majors to complete the ultimate fast turnaround. Doormats no more, they’ll have the swagger of a pennant-winner when they play the Philadelphia Phillies starting Wednesday night.

‘‘By the time we got to the point where we had won our league, our guys knew we had a good team,’’ said Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, remembering back to when his team fell just short of a worst-to-winner transformation, losing Game 7 to Minnesota 1-0 in 10 innings back in 1991.

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It will be a World Series of contrasts that opens at Tropicana Field: North vs. South. Old vs. New. Rest vs. rust. Beloved vs. belittled.

Well, both have disparaged over the years.

The frustrated Phillies have been around since 1883 but the losingest team in the history of U.S. major leagues has had just one title to celebrate, back in 1980. The Rays? The franchise didn’t start play until 1998, didn’t have a winning season until this year and didn’t even shed the Devil from its nickname until after completing play in 2007.

‘‘People were happy when we got our 71st win. People were excited when we got our 81st win, saying you guys have cleared the .500 mark. We still kept going,’’ said Rays pitcher Matt Garza, the AL championship series MVP. ‘‘We’ve proved doubters wrong this entire time.’’

Philadelphia is famous for the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks and booing Santa Claus. Tampa/St. Pete is known for the Gasparilla Festival and strip clubs. Until now, its most noted baseball team was the Yankees, who have held spring training there since 1996.

But baseball’s glamourpusses have all gone home, with the Yankees and Mets failing to make the postseason, and the Cubs, Dodgers and defending champion Red Sox all getting bounced out of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay was a 200-1 shot to win the Series when betting opened, ahead of only Kansas City and Washington (both 250-1). Philadelphia was 18-1.